Vermont meeting law causes worries
VERNON -- Town officials say they’ve got no problem with open meetings.
But Vernon Selectboard members -- joining a chorus of municipal officials statewide -- have major concerns about Vermont’s open-meeting law, which underwent an overhaul that took effect July 1.
Specifically, they’re worried about strict definitions of what constitutes a meeting. And they wonder whether requirements for posting agendas and meeting minutes online may make it even more difficult to find volunteers willing to serve on small committees and boards.
"While I agree with the spirit of this law what problem is it trying to solve?" asked Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee, adding that "the cure is worse than the disease."
In response, one of the authors of that revised law -- Windham County state Sen. Jeanette White -- said more guidance is on the way for town governments and pledged that lawmakers will address concerns. But White, D-Putney, also defended the need for a statute that codifies accountability and transparency.
"They are public bodies doing the public’s business, and that’s why we have an open-meeting law," she said.
The Vermont Legislature in 2014 approved a meeting-law makeover. According to the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, changes include new requirements for posting meetings; creating and altering agendas; posting minutes onto a municipal website; and entering into executive session.
At a recent meeting, attorney Richard Coutant, who represents Vernon, warned that those requirements apply not just to the town’s Selectboard.
"This is not new, but I don’t think it’s been completely understood: A public body is any entity -- any board, any council, any commission, any committee, any subcommittee that’s established by a town," Coutant told Selectboard members. "If you appoint a subcommittee, that subcommittee is subject to the same open-meeting laws that this board is."
He added that, "any time a majority of one of those boards communicates to discuss the business of that public body, that’s a public meeting, which requires notice and an agenda and minutes."
Such communication, Coutant advised, doesn’t necessarily mean members of a board are in the same room. It also can include e-mails.
Some of this information worried Selectboard members. Vernon historically has had trouble maintaining a current, accurate town website, and Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell had doubts about requiring even the smallest town committees to post minutes online within five days of a meeting.
"If you’re going to have a website, in order to maintain it with all of the committees that we have in these towns, you’re going to have to have a full-time person just updating the website every day," O’Donnell said.
"We don’t have the finances to have clerks for every single committee in the town, and we don’t have a full-time IT person to be continually putting stuff on the website," she added. "So how do you do this?"
O’Donnell fears that such hurdles will further discourage participation in town government.
"We’re going to find a lot of people who say, ‘You know what, I’m done. I’m not going to do it anymore,’" O’Donnell said.
Officials in other towns have expressed similar concerns, to the point that VLCT has advised towns to take down their websites if they cannot fully comply with the law.
"I think it’s too bad, but I guess I understand that committees, in particular, are volunteers," Coutant said. "They can’t guarantee that someone’s going to prepare minutes, have those minutes transmitted to whoever maintains the town’s website and get them up and available on that website in five days."
In addition to refreshing Vernon Selectboard members on meeting definitions and posting requirements, Coutant also outlined regulations governing the use of closed-door executive sessions.
Coutant said the open-meeting law underwent some changes before it was approved. Prior to lobbying from the Vermont Bar Association, for example, a previous version of the statute "would have made it very difficult, and in some cases impossible, for an attorney to give a town legal advice and to maintain attorney-client confidentiality and privilege," Coutant said.
Though such provisions were softened, the attorney said, Vernon Selectboard still needs to be careful when announcing and entering into executive sessions.
"They want towns to think about it: Is there really a good reason that we need to have this discussion in private, behind closed doors, with no record kept?" Coutant said. "It points out the need to step back and say, ‘Do we need to do this?’"
He advised the board to "err on the side of disclosure."
If mistakes are made, White pointed out that there is some cushion: Fines for violating the open-meeting law do not take effect until next year.
She cautioned against overreaction, saying town governments have time to adjust to any new regulations.
For instance, White, who is a former Putney Selectboard member, said some concerns about meeting minutes may be overstated. Such minutes need not be a comprehensive, lengthy record of a meeting.
"I don’t think taking down their websites is the way to go," White said. "That seems pretty drastic."
White also is hoping to give towns more certainty about the new law. As chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, she participated in a Thursday meeting that included representatives of VLCT and the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.
White said she and the chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee soon will send a letter to all towns "saying, this is what our intention was and what the meeting law really is ... and that there was no intention to make life difficult for everybody."
White, who is seeking a new term and has competition from three other Democrats in the Aug. 26 primary, also pledged that lawmakers will take up municipal officials’ concerns when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
"There are some things we are going to look at next year," she said.
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